[Sundance Review] Average Gothic Horror ‘Eight for Silver’ Hinders Thrilling New Werewolf Lore

Universal Horror’s The Wolf Man popularized gypsy cursed werewolf lore, but lycanthropy horror has deviated from that mythology significantly in the decades since. Writer/Director Sean Ellis revisits the werewolf curse by way of gypsy rage through Gothic period horror. The filmmaker introduces exciting new lore and gruesome gore, but it’s undone by bland characters, sluggish pacing, and tired tropes.

Eight for Silver opens to an action-packed sequence set in a World War I trench. Gas and bullets rain down on the masked soldiers, resulted in mass injuries and casualties. We follow a wounded to the med tent, past primitive amputations and blood-drenched men. Graphically, a doctor digs bullets out of one man’s torso, who then dies when a foreign, silver shell is plucked from his abdomen. Cut to the man’s sister, bringing his possessions to their aged, adoptive father, who tasks her with guarding four silver shells. The film then cuts to thirty-five years prior, where the church and village elders decide to massacre gypsies; resulting in a curse like no other.

There’s a vast well of potential behind Ellis’s latest. Shot on 35mm, the filmmaker doesn’t skimp on the atmosphere or gore. The inciting event that sets off the curse is horrific, and the pervading imagery that sets that curse in motion offers memorable nightmare fuel. Mostly thanks to a chilling scarecrow. This unique form of curse relies on some biblical evils, and the werewolf mythology itself gives thrilling glimpses of body horror that would make The Thing proud.

Much of that potential gets wasted, though. Our lead pathologist John McBride (The Predator’s Boyd Holbrook) makes a bland Van Helsing type there to fill in any missing exposition. Because of his role, he’s the only character that gets fleshed out in any meaningful way, which isn’t saying much. Eight for Silver is full of bland stock characters that don’t offer any rooting interest. Really, after the gypsy slaughter, you eagerly root for vicious werewolf carnage. The body count isn’t proportional to the inciting crime, either.

While the beasts in this story do dole out bloody carnage, it’s far too few and far between in the lengthy and sluggishly paced narrative. Ellis seems to favor focusing on the grey skies and foggy meadows. The Gothic manor and its candlelit halls. The unspoken secrets between the lord of the estate and his wife, a wasted Kelly Reilly (Eden Lake). Granted, it’s shot on film, and the production value is gorgeous, but between the unhurriedness and the understated performances, things start to feel sleepy fast.

Worse, the whole thing is predictable. The opening framework robs the third act of much-needed stakes. While the werewolf mythology does make some exciting changes, it still plays out in a reasonably familiar fashion. The creature design is very atypical for lycanthropes, and it’s marred a bit by the reliance on shaky VFX during action scenes. Only when the beast is still does it switch to practical effects. Don’t expect a conventional transformation scene, either. That’s an egregious crime for many werewolf horror fans.

Ellis presents some fantastic and exciting ideas here. They’re just nestled in a pretty average feature. There’s some stellar gore work on display, but those scenes tend to come too few and far between. The only characters allowed to display any passion or zest for life are the two victimized gypsies, and the energy departs with them in act one. The third act offers a more exciting climax, but again, there are no stakes when the opening sequence spells out who lives and dies. That there’s a gem of a werewolf film buried under the dismal rubble of bland characters and clichés will leave you howling at the moon in frustration.

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